Desert Weaponry II



The British never matched the German sophistication of command, and worked, moreover, to a totally different philosophy. The primary aim of the British armour was to seek out the enemy armour and destroy it. They saw armoured warfare in terms of cavalry clashes, even knightly encounter.

This led to the development of two types of tank with different roles. The cavalry units, formed into armoured brigades, were equipped with fast cruiser tanks, and infantry fighting was foreign to them. Working with infantry was the task of the infantry tank, slow and heavily armoured, which was organised into army tank brigades. Thus, while the Germans fielded cohesive units in which panzers and other arms worked together, the British divided up tank tasks, leaving a yawning gap between the two roles.

The final impediment was the dispersed nature of British command, whose elements were scattered across the landscape, requiring hours of travel by commanders from the various levels to achieve consultation and receive orders. And as the role of British armour was to seek out the panzers, it was necessary first to find out where the enemy was on any particular day by sending out armoured cars on reconnaissance before decisions could be made. Carver writes what sounds almost like parody as he describes the comings and goings of officers between headquarters in different parts of the Desert as conferences are held and orders passed down. By the time the attack is launched it is almost last light.

And then there is the much debated question of the quality of those earlier British tanks. Throughout the war and long afterwards an all-pervasive song of sorrow was sung over them, and it’s true that German tanks were more mechanically reliable, had better optics for their gun sights, and had better ammunition, but the true reason for the superiority of the panzers lay in their command structure and support weapons.

In July 1942 the main British battle tank – the tank to fight other tanks – was the Crusader.

It was fast, agile and elegant but, alas, heir to mechanical problems, and many fell by the wayside while moving into battle. The main weapon was the standard 40 mm two-pounder, which was generally accepted as a ‘pop gun’.

Then there were two types of infantry tank – the tank designed to fight with infantry. They were the Matilda and the Valentine.

The Matilda, the most heavily armoured, was almost impervious to everything thrown at it until the arrival of the Germans. It suffered from mechanical unreliability, but the Germans were not averse to painting black crosses on captured models and facing them the other way. After all, British anti-tank guns couldn’t penetrate them, either. Its great weakness was that it had the same two-pounder as the Crusader rather than a larger gun firing high explosive (HE) with which to sweep enemy infantry. For that task it had only a machine-gun.

The Valentine was a dainty little tank whose size belied its toughness. The product of Vickers, it was ten tonnes lighter than the Matilda, but it was still heavily armoured, and mechanically it was as reliable as anything else on the battlefield. It remained in service when others had gone or been demoted from the ranks of battle tanks. It, too, had the universal two-pounder, but it was upgunned to a six-pounder for the advance into Tunisia in 1943. It had an excellent profile, and despite its slow speed was used also as a cruiser. Had it been built with a cruiser’s speed it would have sorely troubled the panzers.

The Germans fielded two types of battle tank in July 1942 – the Mark III and the Mark IV, both roughly the same size as the Matilda but more lightly armoured and rather faster. The leader of the pack was the Mark III, though even in mid-1942 it was becoming obsolescent as new heavier tanks with bigger guns to match the Russian armour were coming into production.

The IV was not a later model but a complementary tank to the III. It was roughly the same size and weight, and shared a common mechanical parentage, an advantage the diverse British types did not enjoy. The IV’s main armament was a low velocity 75mm gun, equipped, as was the III’s 50mm, with various types of shells.

Both German tanks were upgunned in 1942 with weapons of the same calibre as before but with longer barrels and higher muzzle velocity. The 50mm KWK now corresponded to the 50mm PAK These new tanks, distinguished by the suffix ‘Special’, definitely outclassed British tanks, but fortunately there were not many of them in North Africa up to July 1942, and ammunition for them was often scarce or non-existent.

There were also some light obsolescent Mark IIs in the Desert. The Mark II had been the mainstay of the invasion of Poland in 1939, but was now useful only for reconnaissance.

The tank controversy is a complex story, and from it emerged that sense of inferiority that affected British morale, among both infantry and armoured personnel. The atmosphere changed when American tanks arrived. The first was the Honey. Strictly it was the Stuart, but after a test drive someone pronounced it a ‘honey’ and the name stuck. But this was still only a light tank, and the weight of armour did not begin to swing in British favour until the arrival of the Grant (and a few Lees, the same tank with an additional machine-gun cupola on top). Even then British armour fought at some disadvantage. Though the Grant had a punchy 75mm gun that dismayed the Germans, this was mounted in a sponson in the hull, and could be traversed only slightly. Thus, to shoot at the enemy the Grant had to present its whole towering height (and it was a tall tank) to the enemy, front on, to the full view of its opponent. This defect was remedied in the Sherman, which had its gun in a revolving turret, but these did not make their appearance until after July 1942.

Both the Honey and the Grant were fast and reliable, and at last British tank crews felt they could meet the panzers on even ground. Certainly at Alamein in July it was the Grants that underpinned our armoured defence.

While German tanks ruled the battlefield for the first three years of the war, German aircraft claimed the skies.

On the battlefield the Germans were disciples of the dive bomber. The dive bomber par excellence was, of course, the Stuka, the Ju87, a slow, vulnerable machine but one that, in the absence earlier in the war of strong air opposition, established itself as a precision bomber and terror weapon. A distinctly-shaped single-engined monoplane with inverted gull wing, it was instantly recognisable, and the howl of its siren as it plunged into its dive reinforced the fear induced by its mere appearance.

The Luftwaffe continued its winning way in North Africa. With the Stuka, the Me109 single seat fighter, the Me110 twin-engined fighter, and the Ju88 medium twin-engined bomber, the Luftwaffe gave effective support to Rommel’s panzers.

But if the British were slow to adapt to better army weapons, their response in the air was much sharper. The answer to the dive-bomber was the fighter bomber – not quite the same thing, but as a fighter modified to bomb and strafe from low altitudes it was much faster and better able to look after itself. And in the Desert, the RAF unveiled its tank destroyer -tank buster, the army called it, though the RAF thought this vulgar-which was a Hurricane IID armed with two 40mm Vickers, guns of the same calibre as the army’s primary anti-tank gun of the time. They were flown with great audacity, and during the Gazala battles, one aircraft swooped so low that it clipped an enemy tank and flew home minus the tail wheel and bottom half of its rudder.

In Africa, the British reinforced their own aircraft with American types, both bombers and fighters, and during Gazala and again at El Alamein -and especially at El Alamein – the British air arm assumed critical importance in the outcome. From the beginning of Rommel’s attack at Gazala in May 1942, the Desert Air Force (a branch of the RAF) ran a shuttle service over the battle areas, with its Bostons and Baltimore bombers and Hurricane and Kittyhawk fighters, bombing and straffing. They would fly back to the shimmering Desert landing strips, re-fuel and re-arm, and roar away again, dust billowing back as they rose into the air. Ground crews abandoned their tents and dug themselves holes beside the aircraft dispersal points. They worked through the heat and far into the night, often through bombing raids, pulling blankets over their heads in the night hours so that they could work by torchlight. As opportunity offered they would roll into their slit trenches to catch some sleep. As the army turned to fight at El Alamein, Air Marshall Tedder, commanding the RAF in the Middle East, threw in everything he could lay his hands on. Hurricane IIs came from training units, Spitfires from Malta, Beaufighters from naval co-operation. Spitfires and Hurricanes consigned to India were diverted to Egypt, and Halifax and Liberator bombers were ordered to fly in. The sight of the silver-bellied bombers floating in over the battlefield became reassuringly familiar to the troops on the ground. Hurricanes, Kittyhawks and a few newly-arrived Spitfires pounded the enemy lines, and Beaufighters reached to enemy airfields and transport services further back. By night the faithful old Wellingtons, now based in Palestine, bombed by the light of flares dropped by obsolescent Albacore biplanes, including the port of Tobruk in their itinerary, and Liberators went as far as Benghasi to beat up this port, so critical to the enemy’s supply line.

Rommel, meanwhile, had exhausted the Luftwaffe, or very nearly so, and when the pursuit to Egypt began he suffered the consequences, less from combat loss than from exhaustion among crews and mechanical failure in over-stressed aircraft, in addition, of course, to the attentions of the DAF. And there was the perpetual fuel shortage. Intercepts showed that by mid-July German air transports were grounded and operational aircraft could be used only sparingly. Not until the arrival of a tanker on 25 July did things improve, and by then the July battle was nearly over.

In his subsequent despatch, Auchinleck said: ‘Our air forces could not have done more than they did to help sustain the Eighth Army in its struggle. Their effort was continuous by day and night, and the effect on the enemy tremendous. I am certain that had it not been for their devoted and exceptional efforts we should not have been able to stop the enemy at the Alamein position ….’

Though it sounds like the proper sort of thing a general should say, it is all true.

So at Alamein the Desert Air Force and the Royal Air Force reclaimed the sky, and just as this was the turning point for ground operations, so it was in the air. The day of the Luftwaffe as an unchallenged terror weapon was over and henceforth it would be Germans who looked up with fear.

There was one trump card in the British armoury, the absolute ace. It might not be thought to be strictly a weapon, but it was, in the sense that any device that supports attack on the enemy can be so considered. This was Ultra, the system for intercepting and decoding high level messages that disclosed the Germans’ every move. Based at Bletchley Park in England, Ultra stripped away all secrecy from the enemy, and while it could not always work fast enough to be a deciding factor in a rapidly-moving battle, it enabled the British to anticipate the next move, and it kept our Malta base informed of movements of convoys to Africa.

By 3 July more than 100 deciphered messages a day were reaching the Eighth Army through Ultra, providing detail of enemy ground positions, his supply movements and intentions, as well as the state of the Luftwaffe. It even reported a state of tension between Rommel and Kesselring.

Ultra was supplemented by our Y service, which listened to enemy tactical radio messages in the field. Ultra gave the broad picture, Y the battlefield situation. The army, navy and air force each had its own Y service, as did the German services. But the Germans had nothing like Ultra and never suspected that we had. The secret was kept until many years after the war.

‘During the July fighting,’ says British Intelligence in the Second World War ‘Eighth Army was well supplied with operational intelligence as with the essential facts about the state of the enemy’s forces and his plans for improving it. Once again Enigma was the chief source, but army Y was scarcely less important.’

The tragedy is that with such powerful technological forces working for us we often failed where it mattered – in direct confrontation on the battlefield … at the point of the bayonet.

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